with Mark McDonough
For me, the ethical questions involved in
giving money have to do with power, control, and integrity.
Is it ethical to have power over someone else’s life
through money? Is it ethical to use purse strings to make
people (or organizations or communities) do something that
they might not otherwise do, even if I perceive it to be
“for their own good”? What gives me the right
to control another person’s (or organization’s
or community’s) destiny just because I have money?
Money is power, and power is difficult to handle.
When my parents gave me a large sum of money
with no strings attached, I was given no guidance about
how to use it. “Could I go to Tahiti?” I asked
my father. He replied, “Yep, whatever you want to
do.” I interpreted that as a lack of caring. Yet,
on a different occasion, when he gave me money with strings
attached—he would pay for the East coast business
school I got into, not the West coast one I wanted to try—it
made me angry. And when I gave money to my friend, with
strings attached, he interpreted that as a lack of caring.
Having had many experiences of giving and
receiving, both with and without strings, I now operate
somewhere in the middle. Whether I’m giving to an
individual or to an organization, I don’t keep my
hands completely out of what the recipients are doing with
the money, nor do I totally run the show and tell them what
to do with it. The key, for me, is full disclosure: I try
to lay out the terms of the gift up front so they can take
it or leave it, or they can negotiate for different terms.
I once gave money to a friend so she could attend a four-year
program to train for a career in the healing arts. Halfway
through the program, she decided to use the scholarship
money to attend massage school instead. She needed more
money, so I gave her a loan, which she agreed to repay.
As time went on, she felt she couldn’t keep her agreement,
so we renegotiated the terms. When we rewrote the deal,
I told her, “The fate of other people after you is
on your shoulders. If I have a bad experience with you,
I won’t want to do this for others later.”
She agreed to provide free healing treatments
to others until she had given away services equal in value
to the amount of money I had loaned her. She also agreed
to give me regular updates. Well, she wasn’t very
good about giving me regular updates, but she did tell me
recently that her debt has been fully “repaid”
through a great deal of service to others post September
11th. I was able to come away from the experience feeling
good because we maintained the integrity of our agreement
through renegotiation, and because I was willing to be flexible
enough not to worry about every condition being met.
I believe that we all bring expectations
to giving. I think it’s an unnatural ideal to ask
people to give without strings. The ethical thing is to
make the conditions explicit. I feel better when I spell
out terms that will make me feel comfortable as a funder.
People are free to say yes or no. By being clear about the
strings I attach to my giving and lending, and being willing
to renegotiate when things don’t go as planned, I’m
able to give money in a way that feels ethical to me while
producing a positive outcome for the recipient.
—Based on an interview with Pamela
McDonough is founder and president of Astrodatabank.com
and is a member of More Than Money.
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